This post is part 3 in a series adapting my thesis on HTB network into blog posts. This one sets out the idea of making a ‘thick description’ and explains the terms we looked at last week ‘normative’, ‘operant’, and ‘espoused’ theology. It then has a tantalising section summarising some of the findings of the main chapters in the thesis. I’m intending to blog these in detail over the coming year but read more to whet your appetite and get thinking about the issues it raises for yourself.


This thesis uses two tools to make an ethnographic study of the HTB network. Firstly it tries to build what Clifford Greetz, following in Gilbert Ryle, called a ‘thick description’, and secondly it uses the prism of what Theological Action Research (TAR) calls the ‘four voices’ of theology.

What is a thick description?

Greetz’s ‘thick description’ occurs where analysis accompanies ethnographic observation, giving a reason for the actions described.[2] As he understood it the researcher needs understanding of the rituals, customs and ideas of their subjects to avoid the trap of unfiltered observation. Quoting Ryle, he observes that one boy blinking his eyes may be an involuntary act, to another boy it may be a signal and a third boy may be blinking as an act of mimicry.[3] The level of understanding of subtlety needed to pick up on these non-verbal clues presents an obvious descriptive challenge for any researcher not deeply imbedded in their subject matter.

The use of ‘thick description’ was expanded beyond Geertz’ anthropological and Ryle’s philosophical usages to sociology and the humanities by Norman Denzin who noted: 

A thick description … does more than record what a person is doing… It presents detail, context, emotion, and the webs of social relationships that join persons to one another. Thick description evokes emotionality and self-feelings. It inserts history into experience. It establishes the significance of an experience, or the sequence of events, for the person or persons in question. In thick description, the voices, feelings, actions, and meanings of interacting individuals are heard.[4]

A true thick description is notoriously hard to achieve. For Schwandt the key is to actually begin to interpret the ‘circumstances, meanings, intentions, strategies, motivations, and so on that characterize a particular episode.’[5] This interpretive characteristic of description rather than amassing relevant detail is what makes it thick. For Denzin the key challenge is to ‘reflect on experience as it occurs’ to enable the researcher to ‘record interpretations that occur within the experience as it is lived.’[6]

Ponterotto’s contention is that a thick description can be established through a common interview study as authorised in his context by the American Psychological Association.[7] It requires fully describing participants without compromising anonymity through including relevant demographic data and presenting concerns. Settings and procedures of interviews need describing in adequate detail as do the wider context that is being studied. This provides a ‘sense of verisimilitude’ to the reader and enables adequate critique of the findings.[8] The reader benefits from a ‘sense of the cognitive and emotive state of the interviewee (and interviewer)’, and the work seeks to create thick meaning for the reader as well as the participants and researcher, enabling them to ‘discern if they would have come to the same interpretative conclusions as the report’s author.’[9]

The advantages of being one of the tribe

The privilege of this research has been unusually high access to what TAR calls the ‘primary gatekeepers of research’.[10] Ethnographists debate the degree to which an interpreter can or should be immersed in their subject matter. According to Simon Coleman, Tanya Luhrman (1989) sought to immerse herself in practicing magic to understand the world of modern witchcraft. Edith Turner felt she had ‘practically disappeared’ into the rituals of the Ndembu people that she was studying.[11] Yet most formal studies of Alpha/HTB so far have the feel of an outsider commentating and their recommendations have often seemed to them to fall on deaf ears.

Hunt laments this in his second book on Alpha,

‘Nicky Gumbel told me he had bought my first book, read half of it and then had “permanently misplaced it.”’[12]

Stephen Hunt

Ireland, similarly to Hunt, was:

‘left thinking that my research would have little appreciable impact on their thinking or the future shape of Alpha’.[13]

Mark Ireland

Earlier academic commentators like Ward and Percy were similarly ‘courteously listened to’ and simultaneously disregarded, according to Heard.[14] Heard makes a strong case himself for writing as an ethnographer, with the insider’s perspective of five years on staff at HTB,[15] but ends up writing from the position of an ‘ex-insider’ offering a Kierkegaardian parting shot:

‘Woe, woe to the Christian church when it will have been victorious in this world, for then it is not the church that has been victorious but the world.’[16]

James Heard

Yet on the other hand there is the danger of the observer being in too close proximity to the subject to have any perspective. As has already been seen the HTB network is a powerful institution utilizing patterns of ‘soft power’ and patronage such that several people sought to warn me to take care in writing this thesis.[17] Happily I have had far more encouragement than caution from within the network, but I am aware that, as I try to offer academic scrutiny back to the network that I hope will help it to flourish, I am walking something of a tightrope between all the insider access that has been kindly afforded to me and having sufficient outsider status.

As an immersed ethnographic investigation this work has the twin advantages of drawing from, but not being limited to, an interview study. On the one hand it draws most specifically from semi-structured interviews with 23 church leaders in the HTB network including each of the three most recent vicars. These have all been carried out under ethical approval guidelines from the University of Durham. On the other hand, it has also been informed by a myriad of conversations, participant observations and interactions that I have had within the network since moving to London in 2011 and being invited to engage at a variety of levels by Ric Thorpe, Sandy Millar and others besides. This provides background colour for what I will seek to evidence from the formal interviews. But these background colour conversations have repeatedly saved me from misinterpreting or misunderstanding key points and I am deeply indebted to the scores of other clergy and church members whose throwaway comments or longer dialogues have helped me build up a thick description that provides me with a ‘sense of verisimilitude.’

What are the ‘four voices’ of TAR?

Into this thick description I seek to apply the insights of ‘theology in four voices’ from TAR.

One of the gifts of TAR is an awareness of the complexity of how theology is developed, oftentimes without the awareness of key practitioners. The four voices provide TAR practitioners with a cyclical way of analysing Christian practice as ‘faith seeking understanding’, and a ‘kind of theology’ in itself and is committed to all research into faith practices ‘being theological all the way through’.[18] It rightly asserts that our practices bear theology as much as our statements of faith.[19] Our ‘faith-full’ actions have a voice – our ‘operant’ theology, as much as our articulated ‘espoused’ theology. Espoused theology in turn derives from to some degree from our ‘normative’ theology – the theology that ‘the practicing group names as its theological authority’[20]. ‘Formal’ theology completes the quartet of voices. This is a privileged academic or intellectual voice able to articulate faith seeking understanding reflectively, by both shining a light on the other voices and at times creating modes of thought that enable reflection in practice. Part of formal theology is dialogue with other disciplines, which Cameron et al suggest may involve engaging with a ‘second cycle’ such as the pastoral cycle, to get the benefit of this outside voice.[21] With that in mind this thesis interacts with the historical mirror of the discipleship goals of John Wesley and George Whitefield as a helpful evaluative tool.

(Diagram from Cameron et al, Talking About God, 55)

Advocates of TAR intend for each of the voices to be able to inform the other, so that practice can change even academic readings of theology. They articulate aspirations to ‘make a real difference’ and bring about ‘practical transformation’ through their conversational approach.[22] This thesis essentially accepts the differentiation identified by TAR into the four voices and seeks to deploy that classification to give explanatory power to the developments that will be mapped in the HTB network.

Luhrmann and the Vineyard

This can be illustrated briefly with regards to the topic of discipleship goals through a North American lens into the Vineyard movement as described by T.M. Luhrmann. It may be possible to have a normative theology emphasizing new birth, conversion, regeneration and a life of holiness and personal sanctification; an espoused theology that is self-consciously ‘seeker-friendly’ emphasizing the benefits to the individual of a relationship with Jesus and end up with an operant theology of a ‘vulnerable God, who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend, our best friend, as loving and personal and responsive as a best friend in America should be.’[23]

TAR researchers point out that operant theology will in time challenge and even change espoused and normative theology. For the HTB network therefore it is helpful to map the development and strength of these voices. This formal theology thesis seeks remind the network of normative theologies that members still assume may be dominant, to establish through semi-structured interviews and a questionnaire what espoused theologies are actually dominant and to create a sufficiently thick description of operant theology through various levels of participant observation that both emerges from, and contributes to, what will be seen as ongoing slippage in the espoused theology away from previously held normative theologies. This will bring into conversation the voices currently evident in the network and ask which voices have become dominant, why, and on what trajectory that might take the movement?

Thesis Map

This thesis examines developments in discipleship goals at HTB partly by holding up two mirrors to the movement from the two historical bookends of David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain; A history from 1730s- 1980s.[24] At the most historic end of this scheme it contrasts the discipleship goals of the HTB network with those of Wesley and Whitefield from the eighteenth-century, but firstly at the most recent end of Bebbington’s scheme, it begins by considering HTB’s roots in more recent Evangelicalism. In particular it shows how much it owes to the ‘classical evangelical’ position of the 1950s-1980s closely associated with the Iwerne Camps, John Stott and the ‘Eclectics’.

This longer view is important because of the assumption in the HTB network as clearly stated by Sandy Millar, that the ‘gospel has not changed, only the model.’[25]

Chapter One then begins the work of painting a thick description of the HTB network through describing its once deep roots in the school of Anglican Evangelicalism represented by EM Nash, founder of the (now infamous) Iwerne Camps and John Stott, Rector of All Souls Langham Place. This school provides a second tightly held normative theology by which to evaluate developments in HTB and helps establish the seismic cultural shift and sense of liberation that John Wimber’s visit to the UK in the 1980s brought to the movement. The chapter concludes with a comparison between the espoused theologies evident in HTB and All Souls Langham Place during the COVID-19 pandemic to show a divergence that mark Cartledge refers to in a recent study of mega-churches. It suggests that the network owes much to John Stott in particular and that some of Stott’s instincts in bridging between biblical teaching and culture have been embraced by the HTB leadership as they attempt to teach into the felt needs of their community.

Chapter Two explores the impact on HTB of the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s ‘waves’ of the Spirit associated with Renewal, John Wimber and the Toronto Blessing. It shows how Renewal in the 1960s and 1970s could be an add on to a normative theology aligned with John Stott. It then considers the impact of John Wimber’s visits to the UK and how his advocacy for Kingdom theology could become [SCT3] an alternative normative theology for HTB. It also illustrates how his new espoused theological paradigm of ‘doing the stuff’ paved the way for substantive shifts in operant theological practices, not least in worship style, and helped create a culture of measurable church growth and church planting that paved the way for both the expansionism now witnessed in HTB and yet also left it susceptible to a success orientated mindset and willingness to break with the past. This can be seen in how  the promise of a world revival from the ‘Kansas City Prophets’ was embraced by the church leadership. An examination of the impact of The Toronto Blessing [TTB] concludes the chapter showing how TTB energised the expansion of the Alpha course between 1994 and 1998 and how rapidly HTB’s operant theology continued to diverge from All Souls Langham Place.

Chapter Three details the expansion of Alpha International and the HTB network in the wake of Wimber’s visits and the Toronto Blessing. Using data from the interviews it considers how the rapid expansion resulting from these respective ‘waves of the Spirit’ fuelled the pre-existing desire for growth and the external influences that fanned this into what can be clearly seen as a success orientated movement. It examines the success narrative through the lens of the interviewees exploring whether an experience of the Spirit may lead to heightened expectations of success. It considers how success is defined and used to galvanise effort and, by corollary, how failure is viewed. It analyses how this has impacted their espoused and operant theologies and the outworking of discipleship goals.

It outlines the critiques that can be brought to this understanding of success and considers how managerialism, pragmatic and church growth considerations, celebrity culture and a skilful packaging of the message, continue to impact espoused and operant theology. The pivotal question set up at the end of the chapter is whether the HTB network has predicated too much on the very thing that sparked its growth in the first place, viz. a tangible encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Chapter Four deepens the thick description through analysing the findings of semi-structured interview process and questionnaire in more detail. It focuse on theological developments in the network and particularly how a truncated eschatology and pneumatological dependency impact on discipleship goals, identifying a key theological shift towards ‘a life worth living now’ and ‘Kingdom come’.

Chapter Five has the role of a historical mirror by which to evaluate these trends. It outlines such common discipleship goals as can be established from the very different ministries of Wesley and Whitefield, and holds them up as a mirror to the current HTB network.  The chapter shows where the HTB network has continuity with either or both of Wesley’s well organised Arminianism or Whitefield’s dramatic Calvinism.  It shows that what Wesley and Whitefield hold in common is more than sufficient mirror by which to examine the 21st movement. The chapter will show how both movements emerge out of austere circles making a ‘serious call for a devout and holy life’, and are birthed from an immanent, tangible and transformative encounter with the Holy Spirit, leading later to unusual manifestations of that Holy Spirit at a time of their greatest expansion.

Chapter Six integrates these findings into the developing ethnographic picture of HTB. It considers whether the operant and espoused theologies derived from either or both of ‘success culture’ and ‘life in the Spirit’ have fundamentally altered the normative theology for the HTB network from its roots in Stott’s eclectics. It suggests some tools for evaluating this and questions for the network to consider if it is only the ‘model’ not the ‘message’ that it wishes to see changed as it tries to build on Stott’s mandate to do effective ‘double listening’ between biblical and contemporary cultures.

It compares the move of the Spirit that has birthed this movement to that which propelled Wesley and Whitefield into action and calls for a renewed confidence in the once for all gospel whose message has not changed. It reminds us that the long term impact of the movement is not so much in grandiose statements about societal transformation but in each individual heart that makes the journey Collins did in 1962 to being dead to sin through life in the Spirit.

The Conclusion: Surmises that an unrealised and unacknowledged theological shift has occurred in some parts of the HTB network away from core normative theologies as represented variously by Wesley, Whitefield, the Ecclectics and John Wimber. This has been prompted by an operant overreliance on an experiential approach to work of the Spirit and espoused teaching that has focused on applications to immediate felt needs rather than theological and biblical systems anchored in a longer theological timeframe from creation/fall to eternity. A success orientated methodology has made critical distance hard to achieve for those in the network with success validating unexamined theological shifts and the propagation of a consumerist Christianity over and against clearly articulated discipleship goals.

Nevertheless, within the movement are the gifts and tools to counter these tendencies. The prized pneumatologically focused soteriology and ecclesiology in the network has a strong explanatory power for both its growth and for the extraordinary ecclesial friendships within the network. The foundational values/ normative theologies that underpinned the growth of the network are still evident within most practitioners and there is every possibility they could be recovered for a new generation. Any theological slippages identified have generally occurred for missional reasons and there is much hope to come for the sort of discipleship within this network akin to that of its early practitioners.

[1] Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3-30.

[2] See Joseph G. Ponterotto Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept “Thick Description” The Qualitative Report Volume 11 Number 3 September 2006, 538-549 for helpful description of how the term has developed since Geertz.

[3] ibid.

[4] Denzin, N. K. Interpretive interactionism. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989), 83.

[5] Schwandt, T.A. Dictionary of qualitative inquiry (2nd ed.). (Thousand Oaks, CA:

Sage, 2001), 255

[6] Denzin, Interpretive, 98.

[7] Ponterotto, ‘Brief Note’, 546

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 547

[10] Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, Catherine Duce, James Sweeney and Clare Watkins, Talking About God In Practice (London: SCM, 2010), 142

[11] Simon Coleman ‘Are they really Christian’ in Spickard, Londres and McGuire (Eds) Personal Knowledge and Beyond, 2002, 76-77

[12] Hunt, 2004, 19

[13] Ireland 2000, 38

[14] Heard ‘Exploring Alpha’ in The Wisdom of the Spirt eds Percy, Ward, 2014, 77; although see Chp 3 for account of how Ward felt persecuted for his 1998 article on Alpha.

[15] See Heard, James. Inside Alpha: Explorations in Evangelism. United States: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2010. 75-79 for an excellent discussion of the complexities of this methodology and the self-awareness necessary for conducting research. 

[16] Heard ‘Exploring Alpha’ 65.

[17] See Chapter Four for France Williams detailed account of his experiences at HTB in Ghost Ship.

[18] Cameron et al, Talking About God, 51

[19] ibid

[20] Ibid, 54

[21] Ibid. 107. This helps to test the robustness of the findings. In this thesis the outside voice is the historical lens of the Evangelical Revival as below. 

[22] Ibid. 57-8. See Ward, Equinox, 28 who sees TAR as a positive way to find the theological as a key element in lived religion.

[23] Luhrmann When God Talks Back, 34 describing the therapeutic perspective on Jesus on offer in experientially orientated evangelical churches. She particularly maps how some Vineyard churches in the USA developed away from John Wimber’s original espoused and operant theology.. 

[24] See also Kenneth Hylson-Smith Evangelicals in the Churhc of England 1734-1984 T&T Clark Edinburgh 1988 for a similar historical span.

[25] See Furlong, 2000, 274.

 [SCT1]I wonder in this might be better phrased in less pugilistic tone?  I suspect your greatest danger is not being beholden but rather that in being given such privileged access you risk losing critical distance. In which case the claim of not being beholden risks becoming a hollow boast

 [SCT2]This paragraph feels redundant given that you go on

 to describe the contents in the thesis Map section.  Do you need it here as well?

 [SCT3]could become?  are you arguing that it did?